Why you should seriously consider leaving your PR agency

When I first moved into PR consultancy 22 years ago, having previously worked in political communications, I was shocked to discover the lack of interest in insights, data and research within PR firms beyond the most rudimentary dip stick research designed to push whatever we were pitching. In politics we had every sound bite and slogan tested and focus grouped to within an inch of its life.

Over the past decade, with the rise of digital communications and social media, and the new horizons that has brought to our industry, this has started to change. Many agencies have established planning and insights teams, bringing more diverse and science-based skills into our industry. (At Weber Shandwick we hired our first strategic planners well over a decade ago and have had our own research arm KRC for over three decades thanks to the political campaign heritage of the firm.)

But many more have not.

At its heart, despite all the changes our business has gone through in a decade of massive media landscape change and exposure to the wider Cannes Lions world of creativity, PR remains largely a “gut feel” business. This is as true of clients as well as agencies.

IMG_1674

Our “Rising CCO” research amongst global heads of corporate communications shows that the majority trust and act on their intuition rather than data and insights that almost certainly exists within their company. Amongst European CCOs, 56% said they relied more on their instincts than data analysis, a stat I shared at the PRCA “Communicating in Turbulent Times” conference in London this morning. In the same piece of research only 1/5 European CCOs oversaw market research and data analytics, but will still have access to it. (The excellent Amanda Coleman, the head of comms at Greater Manchester Police and a fellow speaker made the point that sometimes in a crisis, gut feel is all there is time for. In the case of the Manchester Arena terrorist attack there was just twenty minutes from the bomb exploding to the first GMP tweet. Fair point but in her case that intuition was based on decades of experience and detailed knowledge, and in depth planning including drawing on best practice and learnings from similar incidents elsewhere. Not everyone taking key decisions in PR has that advantage.)

IMG_1686

In an era of increasing distrust in business and institutions, a growing divide between the informed and general publics (Brexit anybody?), and massive generational change (move over Millennials, Gen Z is here), this is both a mistake and the reason many clients still see their advertising agency as their main creative think partners.

I was pleased to be part of a panel discussion on creativity and PR evolution at another PRCA event earlier this week, the PRCA Scotland “Next Gen” meeting in Glasgow. I asked how many of the audience came from agencies that had established planning and research teams. Depressingly few hands went up.

Similarly I was talking to a group of PR graduates recently who told me their degree had barely covered data analytics.

I told the Glasgow group of young PR talent that any agency that advised its clients on long term reputation strategy solely on gut feel was letting both client and young staff down, and faced becoming increasingly irrelevant in our digital and data driven, increasingly insecure and unpredictable world.  Maybe they should consider moving to a more insights driven agency.

The Randomness of Life Giving Strangers

IMG_1464  I was driving back from Heathrow earlier this week, where Britain’s highest temperature of the day was being recorded,  and I was stuck in traffic on the M25, sweltering in the still heat. The weather reporter on Radio Four was saying it was the hottest recorded temperature since the long hot summer of 1976.

I was instantly transported back to a hot dusty road near Salford Docks, now Salford Quays with its Media City and designer apartments, walking back from grabbing a lunchtime sandwich to my summer job as a clerk in one of the engineering firms on the Ship Canal. Walking with me was my fellow summer temp jobber, a student.

I was waiting for my A level results and the plan was, like most of my friends, to get enough grades to scrape into a low level white collar desk job, get a car and some decent clubbing clobber. That, and girls, was our event horizon.

IMG_1461

The student talked about the wider world, new ideas, experiences and social interactions a working class girl like her had discovered by leaving home and going to university.

She worked on me for the couple of weeks we sat together that steaming summer, in our little ratty office looking over the shop floor, persuading, advising, until eventually I agreed to change my mind and go to college.

I ended up in the same town as her, went round to see her once but she was out, and never got round to trying to visit her again. But she got me to college, the first of my branch of the Byrne clan to go, and I never looked back. It was a transformative social, intellectual and cultural experience, and I for one welcome the increasing number of working class kids going to university, the greatest social leveller and social mobility platform we have in our society. I can’t remember her name, or much of what she looked like. But she changed my life back in that long hot summer of 1976.

IMG_1462

Fast forward years later. My wife and I had only recently met and discovered a mutual fondness for camping. We took ourselves, our wetsuits and body boards off to the surf of Cornwall. I’d been looking enviously at the surfers in the wide bay where we were camping, and resolved to give it a go. As ever with me, I cut the prep, bought a second hand board and launched myself out into the waves without a single lesson.

Being shy, and not wanting to humiliate myself in front of seasoned surfer dudes, I took myself to the furthest corner of the bay, well away from them. And out I went.

As well as skipping lessons, I omitted to check on the tide. The surf was fierce and the tide was fast retreating. I soon got into difficulties. Every huge rolling wave dragged me under in its tow, ripping the board from my hands. I was attached by a line but by the time I fought my way back to the surface and reeled in the board, the next wave was pounding me under again, and the tide dragged me back three times whatever feeble progress I had made clawing my way towards the increasingly distant shore.

One mighty wave tore the board from me and shot it like a rocket upwards. When it fell back the tip hit and broke my shoulder.

I knew I was going to die. I had no strength left, my shoulder was in agony, I was choking on brine, losing feeling in my limbs and starting to give up the fight.

In the distance I could see surfers weaving in and out of the breaking waves. I gathered whatever meagre strength I had left and yelled for help, waving with my one good arm.

A miracle happened. I saw one guy lie down on his board and start to paddle towards me. It seemed to take forever and I was still being dragged under and out ever few seconds. After what seemed like an impossible forever he reached me, grabbed my line and started the slow, painful haul against the waves and tide to the shore. Eventually he hauled me out and I lay coughing and shaking and gasping on the beach. Satisfied I would live, he patted me on the shoulder, said “ok mate” and went back to his surfing.

Again I can remember nothing about what he looked like, didn’t even get to say thanks as I lay in shock, but he – literally – saved my life.

In my previous post I wrote about the people I have to thank for the break into PR and advances in my career and reputation. But for many of us it is random strangers – the unsuspecting hero in a terrorist attack, the medic at the car crash scene, the anonymous organ donor, the conversation with a fellow passenger on a long flight -who shape and even save our lives.

IMG_1463

Election thoughts

In truth I spent more of the weekend immersed in the Isle of Wight Festival than politics, and colleagues at Weber Shandwick such as former May aide and Sky political guru Joey Jones have far better insights than me.  Neither as a New Labour refugee do I have any insights into Corbyn’s strategy – if there was much of one. So I will stick to what impressed and heartened me personally about the outcome of the campaign and what I see as positive for British politics.

There are four things that struck me about the outcome and things that personally give me hope.

1 Youth Engagement

Even with the big Facebook voter registration drive in 2015, the 18-24 year old turnout on polling day remained depressingly low at 43%. Although it is too early to assess the specific youth voter turnout last week, there are clear trends of increased turn out in areas with a high youth demographic and the youth vote was key in securing seats in Sheffield, Leeds, Canterbury and elsewhere. Some cite Labour being more sure footed on digital engagement than in 2015, with new tools like Chatter and Promote. But none of these would have worked without the other factors below.

Corbyn grime

Youth engagement in politics is a big issue for me and I am delighted to see young people seizing the opportunity to have a big say in their own future. For me this is the biggest positive out of the campaign.

2 Politics Unspun

For someone trained by Peter Mandelson during my time in political communications, it is counter intuitive for me to celebrate the lack of professionalism of the campaign, and I spent much of it shouting “that would never have happened in my day!” at every botched interview and old style rally complete with Socialist Worker banners, but that – linked to people liking the fact that Corbyn defied convention and spoke out for what he believed in – was undoubtedly a factor in Corbyn’s over-performance of (low) expectation. People, and particularly young people, have pushed back on confectionary politics and responded positively to the real thing. New Labour may have perfected the art of professional campaigning in recent decades, but it worked briefly in the decade post 1997 because Tony Blair was genuinely offering and embodying hope. Without him in his political prime it became artifice. Now ironically Old Labour’s poster boy has put a nail – perhaps the final nail – in spin’s coffin.

On the other hand, May’s attempt at message discipline a la New Labour (“strong and stable”, “collation of chaos”, blah blah) just didn’t work despite being rabbited in unison by her media supporters, because neither she nor her campaign looked strong or stable.

3 The continued declining power of the tabloids

In 1992 The Sun had some semblance of truth in its assertion that it was “The Sun Wot Won It” after a campaign of lies and crap about then Labour leader Neil Kinnock. But as trust in the media declines alongside their circulation figures, and people get increasingly fed up being told what to think, that claim is no longer valid. My own firm’s polling shows that even in 2015 traditional print media was a top three influencer of voting intention. But an updated poll released just ahead of polling day revealed that along with broadcast media, and friends and family, Facebook was now seen as more influential that the tabloids.

Corbyn selfy

4 Civility in politics

Strange one this, given the rampant incivility of many of Corbyn’s supporters to their fellow party members and moderate MPs, but the sight of broadcasters and Tory politicians being really nasty to JC earned him a sympathetic underdog status. People didn’t necessarily agree with him, but they didn’t like abuse being heaped on someone who is basically a decent if often misguided old guy with a beard telling it the way he sees it. Given the unprecedented level of nastiness flying in the Trump campaign, it is interesting and affirming to see the opposite effect in our election less than a year later.

Corbyn tights

So these are four things that struck me and gave me heart out of this election, the results of which continue to twist and turn by the hour.

One last thought on JC – and let’s remember Labour did actually lose the election despite seven years of unpopular austerity policies, a welcome surge in youth participation and a fairly shambolic Tory campaign – was underlined by Peter Mandelson on BBC Radio the other day. He made the point that an election took place on the streets, and now the power shifts back to Parliament. JC has to show he can make that shift also. That means a Shadow Cabinet of the talents, not the cronies. A test for Corbyn is does he embrace the best talent across the PLP and Lords, or return to the narrow tribalism that marked his first two years as leader.

Living in spin

After thirty six years in PR and communications, and nearly twenty three years with my firm Weber Shandwick, my boss Andy Polansky and I announced yesterday my stepping down from the firm and PR in early 2018.

For me it was a mix of excitement about the future and focussing on my family and my personal creative projects, and sadness at leaving such a great firm, team and industry.

WeberShandwick.EDU.lnk

Having failed to make a living as a music journalist and new wave poet (oh yes) I fell into PR thanks to my first boss Barry Walsh (then head of PR for The Automobile Association and now a published novelist, and still an inspiration to me).

new wave poet

As a working class Northerner who didn’t even know what PR was (and didn’t possess a driving licence) it was a lucky break in the graduate unemployment hit 1980s.

That break taught me a valuable lesson. Don’t wait to be asked or accidentally discovered. I put on my only suit one day and marched up to the top floor and banged on his office door. Luckily he saw my potential. I have tried to do the same in others ever since, regardless of education and social and cultural background.

After a couple of other jobs I read an interview in The Guardian with Labour’s new director of communications, a certain Peter Mandelson. He talked of how the Left had to match the Tories at their own game on professional marketing and communications. I wrote to him saying I shared his view. He invited me in for coffee and I walked out with a job. Another lesson – be proactive. Put yourself about.

Peter also became my mentor, and I always urge young PRs to seek out someone they admire and can learn from. Worked for me.

Mandelson

Political communications is not for the faint hearted, but I had a great time, learned a lot, and worked with politicians like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and great strategists like the late Phillip Gould and Deborah Mattheson, not to mention the Red Wedge collective.

Then came The Prince’s Trusts. There was some opposition to this working class lefty being allowed near Prince Charles’ inner sanctum, but I got there and survived several attempts by Luddites in the Royal Household to fire me.

While at The Prince’s Trusts ( comms director for the PoW’s International Business Leaders Forum) I got to travel the world as part of PC’s entourage. I was a long way from Salford.

prince charles

I also got pro bono support from an international PR agency (who will remain nameless and I am sure will have improved). I thought they were a useless bunch of chinless wonders, adding little value and dressing up plain common sense in over complicated marketing bollocks.

chinless

I was sceptical therefore to be approached by another international PR firm, Shandwick, back in 1995. On offer was a senior role in their London public affairs practice, which like most PA firms in the mid 1990s were stuffed full of Tories and old-style lobbyists. I took the plunge, got a decent wedge for the first time and a company motor, and have barely regretted a day since. I am very proud as a working class son of Salford and Irish immigrants to have ended up running a big chunk of the world’s second largest and most respected PR firm, with a stellar list of clients.

I am also proud of the work we do in partnership with clients which has made us the most award-winning and Cannes Lions winning EMEA PR network. I am deeply grateful to Lord McNally, Lord Chadlington, Shandwick’s founder, who gave me my first agency role, Harris Diamond (now leading mega ad network McCann) who gave me the UK CEO role at Weber Shandwick and my current boss Andy Polansky who promoted me to run Europe and now EMEA in 2008.

Sensing my impending decrepitude following my recent blog proclaiming I had hit 60, some very nice people have been asking me what I want to do next in PR. The answer is simple – nothing.

to do nothing
You never say never, but after four decades in this industry, surfing the exciting waves of change we have been going through since the social media revolution, and working in a senior role for one of the top two firms in the international agency space, and certainly the most creatively awarded in this region, me and PR are kinda done with each other.

Having talked about creativity for a decade, it’s now time for me to focus on my own creative ambitions and passions. Over the coming year I will be heading back to college to do an MA in creative writing, and I want to write full time as well as be more of a full-time dad to my three young boys.

So thanks PR, you’ve been good to me, and I have tried to give something back to you. But it’s not the be all and end all.

What I do want to do over the coming year, as well as serve my firm and colleagues with the commitment I have always shown and they deserve, is to continue to make waves on diversity – social as well as ethnic – and broadening the talent pool in PR. We need the next generation of Jamal Edwards, not just black or Asian traditional media relations people. We need greater social as well as cultural and skill set diversity.

tbf

PR spends too much time looking inwards at PR. In a post digital, creative content driven world, our future talent probably hasn’t even heard of PR. We just have to work harder to attract them, interest them, promote and retain them.

So what has this gnarled old PR vet gleaned from nearly four decades of living in spin?

Firstly, I believe that the biggest drivers of change in our industry for most of its history have both occurred in the past decade – the social media revolution and the opening up of the Cannes Lions festival to PR. Social media has not just got us out of the media relations silo it has levelled the playing field in marketing. We in PR are no longer always second fiddle to advertising.

On the other hand Cannes has forced us to see our work not just up against other PR firms, but in the context of the most creative minds in marketing and communications. It has forced us to raise our game on creativity and strategy. That’s a good thing, and to those in PR who feel uncomfortable or exposed – that’s the point!

cannes

Secondly, we have to stop talking well-meaningly about diversity and start to act decisively on it. There are great schemes out there like The Taylor Bennett Foundation’s work with Brunswick and FTI, and Weber Shandwick’s partnership with The Media Trust, that can be picked up on and joined. We recently put senior managers through unconscious bias training which I can recommend. And we have to set ourselves real, measurable targets in terms of BAME consulting staff.

Thirdly, and I say this to all junior staff I speak to on managing their PR careers, get yourself a mentor. They don’t have to be the greatest political strategist of their generation (like mine) but they will be someone whose career and thinking you admire. And if you are senior, try reverse mentoring. Get digitally native Millennials and Gen z’s to teach you stuff about latest trends and SoMe innovations. They live it, you learn it.

Fourthly, I solidly believe that everyone should work both sides of the in-house/agency divide. Without that level of understanding, unconscious “us and them” attitudes persist.

Fifth, it’s not enough just to talk creativity, have a pink plaster cow in reception or rebadge some dude from the consumer practice with a cool haircut and trainers as ‘creative director’. You have to give your team creative inspiration and space to absorb creative energy. You can’t expect staff to sit for ten hours a day at a desk and suddenly turn on the creative brilliance. Set them free to be creative.

Finally, I am often asked about my management style. If I have one it is probably part Alex from A Clockwork Orange, part Michael Corleone, part Sun Tzu and part Machiavelli. Occasionally being a twat but always trying to be authentic. I can live with that.

clockwork

So that’s all for now. I will continue to use my blog partly to write on PR, an industry that has occupied two thirds of my life.

A SLOG (short blog) on technology

Today we are fascinated by the dizzying pace of change. The Internet is the new Industrial Revolution. Wired is as influential as The Economist. Brands like Uber, Facebook, Ocado, Tinder, dominate our lives. Brilliantly innovative technology companies with cars, cat videos, groceries and casual sex attached. What we once read as niche, inky, badly spelled, loss-making newspapers are now 100m reader-strong (still loss-making) global media platforms. The new iPhone is celebrated with more excitement and media coverage than a groundbreaking new drug that will save millions (or, I suspect, the Second Coming). Cannes is as much a tech event as a creative awards showcase.

IMG_0932

Yes we live at an exciting time, and we are very clever.

But get this. In just three short years, 1895 to 1897, three groundbreaking discoveries occurred. X-rays, radioactivity and the electron. The second winning the first Nobel Prize for a woman, Marie Curie. Three years.

So be excited about the post-Internet technology revolution. But read history as well. We are not as clever as we think. We are not yet “The Supermen”.

Social customer service

In all the excitement about Twitter – a gift to gobby Mancunians everywhere – over its short life to date, some marketeers quickly cottoned on to its potential for enhancing or even replacing existing customer service infrastructure. Why have expensive human beings sitting around just waiting for calls and drinking the firm’s terrible coffee, or customers forced to listen to shit jazz while they wait half an hour as some bit of AI tells them they are sorry about the wait, you are a deeply valued customer etc, then connects you to a bad line in outer Mongolia and they hang up on you, when you could manage it more instantaneously and engagingly (and cheaply) via Twitter.

Bit like…..why have all that messy democracy and the expense of a bunch of suits on private jets and big shouty White House press conferences when you can have some old bigot on a toilet with a smartphone.

101743980

Indeed, the theory is sound. Twitter is absolutely my favourite SoMe platform, I spend so much time on it my assistant Kylie has threatened to break my arm and I was thinking of auditioning to be a judge on The Voice (love that show, bloody love it. Max to win.) Twitter could have a good run at being the 8th Wonder of the World. It is democratic, intelligent, fast, versatile, marvellous.

On the other hand it is used by most of the worst racist, sexist, homophobic, semi -literate, unpleasant, ranty, bigoted, stupid, broadcast-mode (on an engagement platform!), self obsessed, authoritarian wankers in the world. They use cars and phones and toilet paper also. We should blame cars and phones and toilet paper????

As my (clearly disappointed ☹️) first girlfriend once said, it ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it. To paraphrase, it’s not your number of characters that matter, it’s what you say with them.

People say things on Twitter,  Facebook and other platforms they would never – apart from the worst of the racist, sexist, etc etc twats on Twitter (“TATs”) – say face to face or even down the phone. AI is no substitute for empathy.

This week I have directly addressed, in politest Byrne-speak, four major brands as a customer – a major transport organisation, a world class media brand, a major high street brand and one of many runners up in the The UK’s Crappiest Train Operator awards. Not one has tweeted, messaged back. That is not engagement. You may think your customer is demanding, fickle, maybe a bit bolshy, but you don’t ignore them on one of the world’s most public and democratic platforms.

With Twitter brands can engage with fans, customers, detractors, potential customers, where they are and right now. Yet so many just use it as another one way blah blah marketing platform, and overlook that it can help to make your brand human, it can engage and inform, in an instant. Sometimes they do get it but download it to some poor intern not yet steeped in the science of great customer service and experience.

So frankly I was pissed off. I get more engagement with my mum on Twitter than with a train company I spend fucking thousands of pounds a year on.

I was mildly ranting about this with my friend Kate in the office. She had a different story. She was walking past a building site and the builders, wittingly or unwittingly, covered her in cement dust. She was pretty pissed, as this is one stylish, smart and strong woman. She yelled at them. She reached for her Twitter Machine ready to blast the buggers into Kingdom Come.

But then she did something less fashionable but more effective. She called the building company. She talked to a person. They had a civil conversation and the customer service guy followed up with an email apologising again and promising an investigation into what could have been a serious accident.

Good customer service. Good engagement. Person to person.

So while I enjoy a good old twitter rant about my duffo train company, and get loads of retweets from Twitter accounts just set up to lampoon and digitally flay them alive, truth is it is all heat and noise. The buggers aren’t listening and don’t feel they have to.

So, Twitter can be a great customer engagement tool. But if a brand just isn’t listening, if the Twitter account was the idea of the Chairman’s clever grandson Rupert and a SoMe token gesture, it just makes bad customer experience even worse.

 

Life, love, loss, death and movies

Despite once having tried to earn a crust reviewing gigs, plays and movies, I don’t write much about movies. These days the telly has writing like those two greats, the first respective episodes of The Sopranos and The Affair, so less need for movies. But Arrival impressed me so much I am still chewing it over. The best stories do that. They resonate and reverberate. An instantly  forgotten story, a confection once tasted soon mentally discarded,  is a poor story.

I say best story. It wasn’t the best film. After a brilliant opening scene that could have fronted any genre of movie – five minutes of brilliant writing which is a mini movie in itself – it developed into an intelligent but occasionally hackneyed movie: a hundred and twenty years on from the publication of War of the Worlds by HG Wells, aliens are still being served up as things with tentacles that you might find in the chiller cabinet of a sushi restaurant.

Arrival

Arrival

But that opening five minutes of love and loss! As an aspirant writer I had to acknowledge that a couple of Hollywood scriptwriters achieved a better written, more condensed and compelling story than I might write in a lifetime.

Arrival is not a sci-fi movie. It’s a reflection on life – and communication – told against the backdrop of alien contact. The best in the genre are – 2001; A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET, all were about life and death and people stuff, not face ripping baddy aliens with ray guns  or Cold War paranoia. (I wonder if in Trump’s America we will see a resurgence of that 1950′s space age cowboy movie?Cue Independence Day 3, 4, 5…)  As a non American, I thought Arrival was the best film on the current American psyche (walls, communication and miscommunication, let’s kick those goddam aliens out of town etc) since American Beauty.

In the early seventies three artistic events shaped my early teens: David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust, and the films 2001 and A Clockwork Orange – two directed by that most artistically visual of directors Stanley Kubrick, and one heavily influenced by both films.
In my little world I can draw a straight line from 2001 in the late sixties to Arrival in 2017, via Close Encounters and, yes, ET.

2001: A Space Odyssey

2001: A Space Odyssey

They are similar in that they use extra terrestrials as a cypher but they are really about human existence, behaviour, loves, hopes, fears and death, existentialism and evolution (or not in our human case. With Trump, Putin, Syria, ISIS, global warming, famine, North Korea, the almost fashionable misogyny we see in the media and all around us, how does evolution look to you right now?)

They differ in that 2001 starts from the bleak Cold War perspective that we have fucked it all up and now it’s time for the Supermen to take over ( cue numerous Bowie songs from the earliest albums onwards). Close Encounters is also about the banality of life without hope, but the possibility of a better life, maybe even life after death. ET kinda the same but with cuddly toy merchandise potential. Arrival is a reflection on love, loss and resurrection, on communication and connection vs miscommunication. All focus on the bigger better hopeful world beyond our hum drum, sadness soaked existence and meaningless human interchanges (the aliens talk in light, music, circles in these movies, the humans exchange bland bollocks and threats).

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Another similarity is powerful symbolism and visual imagery – a black monolith, a brooding mountain, in Arrival, black hovering ellipses – but that’s a whole other essay!

There will be better films – Moonlight and Hidden Figures I am particularly looking forward to – this year but from the perspective of not just our relations with each other, but life, the universe and (the meaning of ) everything, Arrival will stay with me for a long while just as 2001 has done (I can list out almost every frame let alone scene) across a lifetime.

These days more than ever, at least since impending nuclear oblivion haunted the fifties through to the eighties, popular culture as well as higher art can show us there is more to human existence than just surviving the next bucket of shit waiting around the corner. Not bad for two hours in the dark with a big Coke and a bag of popcorn.

 

 

It’s my party and I’ll rant if I want to

In a marketing industry obsessed with youth, it is probably career and social suicide to admit THAT I JUST HAD MY SIXTIETH BIRTHDAY. There, I said it.

Do I feel any different? Apart from the proverbial one day closer to death, no. But that’s not how many marketeers see it. Cue spam emails and direct mail shots on everything from retirement and inheritance planning to erectile dysfunction. As one of my planners put it, we do like to put people in boxes.

Aged sixty. Couldn't possibly be a model

Aged sixty. Couldn’t possibly be a model

My favourite wearable brands include Adidas (68 years old), Ben Sherman (54 years old) and Paul Smith (opened first shop almost fifty years ago). My favourite brand in the world is Gibson (the company is 115 years old and the Les Paul is an old age pensioner at 65). Your body clock doesn’t click over another year and suddenly you are in the market for elasticated gardening trousers.

Brands from Adidas to Netflix to Bowie defy the traditional “people in boxes” approach to demographics. But a lot of marketing hasn’t cottoned on. Possibly because planning departments are full of Millennials who see the world through their eyes rather than through the diverse and increasingly complex world’s eyes.

Over sixty. Couldn't possibly be creative

Over sixty. Couldn’t possibly be creative

Average life expectancy in the UK is now over eighty. Lumping the over sixties together is similar to saying you will like and consume the same stuff at twenty as when you celebrate your Big Four O, and so will everyone else in that age group. Or Millennials in their carefree early twenties are exactly the same as mid thirties Millennials with a growing family and a mortgage.

Then there are the ageist attitudes in our industry so eloquently talked about by my IPG colleague Nicky Bullard, chair of MRM-Meteorite, in her “shocking idiotic prejudice” speech at Eurobest last December (see earlier post below). Not only for dismissing experience and insight gleaned over successful careers of achievement and leadership,  but also failing to understand truths such as a third of all tablets in the UK are in the hands of the over fifties, and within twenty years that older demographic will control 75% of wealth in this country. It’s about the technology and the money, stupid.

So with the defiant air of Keith Richards posing with that “I survived 2016″ sign I say f*** you to ageism and the stereotypes and sit back with a glass of fine wine I would neither have truly appreciated or been able to afford at 21.

Cheers.

Grim oop North?

I have been in communications for for 35 years and a PR agency for 22 of those years, so there is little in the way of Ad Fab bollocks,  pretentious nonsense and plain common sense dressed up as earth shattering and internet breaking, that takes me by surprise any more. But an article by the Chief Strategy Officer of O&M in Campaign magazine this week had me alternatively rolling around laughing and rolling my eyes in despair. blog

His analysis – that  Brexit was a shock to the London and metropolitan establishment, and that increasingly the opinion elite are out of touch  with what people outside South West and North London (or the Groucho Club) are thinking and experiencing – is correct.

I heard similar from senior editors at The Economist a few weeks back. But “planning in the wild”, getting “out there” and sticking nice middle class planners on trains to Brexit centres like Boston, Lincs, to Oldham and – bizarrely – The Isle of Man (?! I could fix them up with a few insightful chats in Salford) to listen to “real people” (argh! All people are “real”, it’s just some experience life more real than others)  harks back to some Evelyn Waugh-esque jaunt to see how the peasants live.

During my time I have been lucky enough to work with some great insights strategists like Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks, and the late great Phillip Gould, who spent years listening respectfully to people across Britain on why they had fallen out of love with Labour.  Not an away day to Ormskirk for Jeremy and Jemima from the planning department. I assume his next strategy is to lock his team in a room to watch back to back episodes of “Coronation Street”, eyelids clamped open Clockwork Orange style but with flat whites on tap for survival. Rather than just get out of the Groucho and the office and go talk to “real” people in seemingly alien towns and social groups, maybe his “chief strategy” should be to actually hire some of them into his bloody team! Oh and buy them a copy of “Everytown” by Julian Baggini, much cheaper than a first class Virgin Rail ticket. And maybe open up offices outside London. If there was ever a wake up call to the need for greater diversity in PR and marketing, it’s this well meaning but facile field trip initiative. (By chance I am working on a story of an academic anthropologist who gets sent from his comfortable university surroundings to live with ordinary disadvantaged people in a northern inner city. Thanks to the O&M article I have even more black comic fodder as source material.)

Eurobest

Had an interesting experience at the Eurobest Festival of European Creativity, the European arm of the Cannes Lions Festival, recently in Rome. I was hosting an ‘in conversation’ session with economist and broadcaster Dr Noreena Hertz on our work together and her research on Gen K (or Gen Z – 14-21 year olds). Noreena spoke with insight and eloquence on the difference between this generation and their slightly older Millenial brothers and sisters (see www.webershandwick.co.uk for more details on our Gen K insights work).eurobest2 High on her agenda was GenK’s fear of debt, and very different relationship with brands.

Literally the next session after was on another generational issue, where my IPG colleague Nicky Bullard, chair and CCO of MRM-Meteorite, spoke passionately on “Ageism, our shocking idiotic prejudice.” She kicked off with a series of short films from multi-award-winning advertising creative gurus saying “you won’t hire me”, because they were over sixty.

eurobest

Then, to make her point to the largely millennial audience, she got us all to stand up.
Then she got everyone in the audience who were under thirty to sit down. A number did. Then she got everyone under forty to sit down. The majority did. Then she got everyone under fifty to sit down. About a dozen of us were left standing. Then she got everyone under fifty five to sit down. Yours truly was the last man or woman standing – though looking round I could tell I wasn’t the only one over fifty five, just that I was the only one with the balls to stand up and admit it!

Nicky’s point wasn’t just the idiocy of disregarding talent and experience, which Sir John Hegarty has written on in Campaign recently. It was also – and this linked back to Noreena and my earlier session on GenK and their fears around debt, financial insecurity and AI stealing their jobs – that in the breathless chase for the young and increasingly financially strapped audience, marketeers were ignoring the fact that one third of tablets are now owned by people over fifty, and within twenty years in the UK the over fifties will control over 75% of the wealth.

Going back to Nicky’s point on the waste of creative skills and experience, she is setting up what she calls The Cross Project, to have older creatives who would otherwise be sacrificed on the alter of youth mentor young entrants to the marketing industry, while those young entrants mentor their older partners in new social media developments and strategies. Perfect synergy.

I have written before on my strong support for reverse mentoring, going back to when Twitter was first launched and I got the youngest member of our then fledgling social media team to mentor me in engaging on SoMe.

Full praise to Nicky for her project and for speaking out on another aspect of the diversity debate raging within advertising and marketing.